DEYANG, China - China ordered dozens more helicopters to drop aid into remote areas of quake-hit Sichuan province Thursday as rescuers broke through key roads to the epicenter that had been blocked since a powerful earthquake that has directly affected 10 million people.
For the first time since Monday's 7.9 magnitude quake, which killed an estimated 15,000 people, rescuers were able to move heavy equipment into the worst-affected areas. Previously, soldiers riding to isolated mountain villages on helicopters and small boats had been forced to dig for survivors with their hands.
More than 72 hours after the earthquake rattled central China, rescue workers appeared to shift their efforts from poring through downed buildings for survivors to the grim duty of searching for corpses.
Near the city of Shifang, where chemical plants collapsed in the earthquake, troops buried bodies wrapped in white sheets in a mass grave lined with lime. About 50 troops wearing helmets and face masks were using a large mechanical shovel to dig.
In Dujiangyan, police and militia pulverized rubble with cranes and backhoes while crews used shovels to pick around larger pieces of debris. On one sidestreet, about a dozen bodies were laid on a sidewalk, while incense sticks placed in a pile of sand sent smoke into the air as a tribute and to dull the stench of death.
The bodies were later lifted onto a flatbed truck, joining some half-dozen corpses.
Ambulances sped past, sirens wailing, filled with survivors. Workers asked those left homeless to sign up for temporary housing, although it was unclear where they would live.
Plans for the Defense Ministry to deploy 101 more helicopters underscored worries that the official death toll of 14,866 will skyrocket as time runs out to find survivors. Nearly 26,000 people remained buried in collapsed buildings, and the official Xinhua News Agency said the quake directly affected 10 million people in 44 counties and districts in Sichuan — half of the area's population.
After days of refusing foreign relief workers, China accepted an offer from Japan to send a rescue team, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Thursday. The announcement posted on the ministry Web site did not mention allowing in any other foreign workers.
Three mountainous towns north of the provincial capital of Chengdu were still cut off, Xinhua said, with 20,000 residents trapped in the towns of Qingping, Jinhua and Tianchi. The number of casualties there was unknown.
Xinhua said a team of 500 People's Liberation Army soldiers carrying medicine and food were attempting to hike into the towns again.
Roads were cleared to two key areas that bore the brunt of the quake's force, with workers making it to the border of Wenchuan county at the epicenter and also through to hard-hit Beichuan county, Xinhua reported. Communication cables were also reconnected to Wenchuan.
The Chengdu Military Area Command also planned to airdrop 50,000 packets of food, 5,000 cotton-padded quilts and clothes there, part of the military rescue operation that has grown to include more than 116,000 soldiers and police.
The Ministry of Information Industry issued a rare appeal to the Chinese public calling for donations of rescue equipment including hammers, shovels, demolition tools and rubber boats.
The plea on the ministry's Web site said, for example, that 100 cranes were needed. The public request is emblematic of China's relative openness in dealing with the tragedy, as compared to past crises.
Dujiangyan city was clogged with buses and trucks decked out with banners from companies saying they were offering aid to disaster victims. One tour bus was stuffed full of water bottles, cartons of biscuits and instant noodles.
Public donations so far have totaled $125 million in both cash and goods.
NBA star Yao Ming, China's most famous athlete, was planning to donate $285,000 to the relief effort, agent Erik Zhang said.
"My thoughts are with everyone back in my home country of China during this very dark and emotional time," Yao said in a statement from Houston, where he is recovering from a broken left foot with hopes of competing in the Beijing Olympics this August.
As the rescue effort gathered momentum, the depth of the problem of tens of thousands homeless stretched government resources.
North of Chengdu in Deyang, the largest town near the devastated areas of Hanwang and Mianyang, thousands of people have streamed into the city hospital since Monday, mostly with head or bone injuries.
Patients heavily wrapped in bandages and with cuts and bruises were huddled in canvas tents in the hospital's parking lot.
"Our doctors have worked continuously since Monday and people keep coming in. We have to keep strengthening our measures to keep up," said Luo Mingxuan, the Communist Party secretary of the hospital.
There were piles of donated clothing for survivors at the hospital and stands for them to make free telephone calls. Handwritten notes with names of the injured were posted on a board in front of the hospital's emergency section, where ambulances arrived every few minutes.
A group of 33 American, British and French tourists were airlifted from Wolong, site of the world's most famous panda preserve, to the provincial capital of Chengdu on Thursday morning, Xinhua reported. All were in good health, Xinhua said.